Amid Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine, people from Kremlin-occupied Donbas remain the least protected group, having no rights or freedoms, and being dependent on the will of the Kremlin and militant groups under its control.
On Feb. 18, heads of Kremlin’s proxies in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts began evacuating civilians after the militants increased shelling of Ukrainian government-controlled territories.
Russian propaganda began accusing Ukraine of a potential military offensive, a statement debunked by Ukrainian officials.
However, those who decided to leave occupied Donbas for Russia faced horrendous conditions and discrimination by local residents.
The Kyiv Independent contacted people leaving occupied regions for Russia, none agreed to speak on record. The Kyiv Independent therefore provides comments made by people in a closed Telegram chat, without mentioning their last names for safety reasons.
Kateryna says she woke up exhausted after sleeping the night on a creaky wood floor in Kuibyshevo, a village in Russia’s Rostov Oblast, near the Ukrainian border.
“Russia promised that buses would bring us to some boarding houses where food and beds were. Instead, there were 500 people crowded in a small building, sleeping on the floor or in the chairs,” wrote Kateryna.
She was among the first people from Kremlin-occupied Donetsk to follow the call of Russian proxy leaders to evacuate the region en masse on Feb. 18.
“I was cooking dinner when I heard a siren going off. Some of my friends warned me about an attack by the Ukrainian military,” Kateryna wrote in a Telegram chat where residents of Russian-occupied Donbas discuss their evacuation plans.
The militants packed civilians in buses and said they wanted to evacuate 700,000 people — a move that many experts believe could be a preparation for a full-scale Russian military offensive.
The occupying forces soon launched a mobilization campaign targeting men under 55 years of age, amid Russian-launched escalation in the region.
After announcing evacuation, Russia began rapidly escalating its ongoing eight-year war against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin officially recognized the Kremlin-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as independent states on Feb.21, inviting international condemnation.
Retiree Vasyl, who stayed in Donetsk and spoke with the Kyiv Independent on the condition of anonymity, said that he had no intention to leave.
"The evacuation in 2014 showed that they are interested in us only us forced labor," he told Kyiv Independent, referring to Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine.
"If I leave, it will definitely be for Kyiv," he added.
No way back
Almost all locals that the Kyiv Independent reached out to didn’t believe that a full-scale war would begin. However, Kateryna said her husband insisted she should leave for Russia “just in case.”
He couldn’t leave Donetsk with her because of the "mobilization" announced by the militants.
On Feb.19, she was transferred to Taganrog, another city in the Rostov region. She hoped that Russia would give her shelter with better living conditions this time. Instead, she saw the tent camp with rusty metal beds.
“It’s obvious to me that no one wants us here in Russia. I rent an apartment at my own expense. I don’t see the prospects that Russia will provide us. I have money for a maximum of a week,” she said.
On Feb. 22, she decided to come back to occupied Donetsk, she couldn't.
“I realized we made a huge mistake when we chose to leave,” wrote Anna from Ilovaisk. “But it’s too late now. They (Russian proxies) won’t let us back in. The checkpoint is working one-way”.
Anna said that if it weren’t for the kids, she wouldn’t have traveled to Russia.
“In 2014, we didn’t leave… But I’m so tired of sitting in basements (during shelling), trying to calm down the kids. I didn’t want to go through it again," she wrote in the closed Telegram group.
She said she was surprised by the negativity she received from Taganrog citizens.
“I wrote a post in a local VK (Russian social network) group, asking for help with the job search. And people in the comments went crazy, saying that Donbas refugees should go to Siberia, or elsewhere far away," wrote Anna.
The Kremlin was quick to say that the Rostov region was ready to receive refugees. Putin bolstered that all evacuees would be given 10,000 rubles ($130), equivalent to about half the average monthly salary in war-ravaged Donbas.
Neither Anna nor Katerina hope to receive the payout promised by Putin anytime soon. In any case, according to them, it would not help much to settle in a new city.
Several people in the chat said that even older men were turned back at the border and forced to register in the Russian-led "military commissariat." They mentioned receiving SMS messages from the "commissariat" with calls to “be a man and go defend the Motherland.” Some talked about cases of coercion into the trenches.
Denys, who also lives in Donetsk, thought that the announced evacuation was a show for Russian propagandists, yet he admitted that the anxiety was still present.
“Do you actually believe that Ukraine was waiting for more than 150,000 Russian troops to move near the border to attack Donbas?” Denys wrote. “We all are going to be snatched up and used as cannon fodder… and for what? The so-called Republic?”
Denys wasn't able to leave Donetsk.
The occupying forces have been actively shelling Ukrainian territory along the front line, killing soldiers, wounding civilians, and damaging homes and civilian infrastructure.
Over the last four days, Russian-led militants damaged a total of 100 buildings along the 420-kilometer front line, according to the Defense Ministry.
“This is a war crime,” Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Feb. 21.
“Criminals are trying to provoke us into making a mistake so that the Kremlin can get some space for maneuvers, under the pretext of ‘protecting’ the people to whom they have given Russian passports.”
Denys from Donetsk said “he is tired of this masquerade,” and hoped to find a way to get out of the city before he was mobilized into the militant army.
Russian propagandists have been reporting that people in Donbas celebrated Putin’s decision by putting up Russian flags on the balconies and chanting “Russia! Putin!”
“What the f*ck there is to celebrate?” said Denys.